dkSez : : : : : : Don Kahle's blog

Quips, queries, and querulous quibbles from the quirky mind of Don Kahle

Why do people say 'after dark' when what they mean is 'during dark'? After dark would be when it's light again, right? * There are 10 types of people in this world -- those who read binary, and those who don't. * I'm rethinking the whole brown rice thing. What if it's just more white liberal self-hatred? Whole wheat, honey, unbleached flour. All better. Sez who? * Eugene should be HQ for White People for Diversity. We'll fight for diversity to be included in books, which is where we know to look for it. * Give a man a fish and he'll eat for a day, but give a man a pillow, and he'll dream of steak. * What can you say about a state that puts the town of North Bend 225 miles southwest of Bend? We rely on visitors for entertainment.

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EPUD iPAD: Huh?

November 21st, 2014 · 3 Comments

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There’s an unanswered question inside the recent management drama at Emerald People’s Utility District. If you haven’t followed it over the past few months, here’s a quick recap.

In September, EPUD’s board of directors put General Manager Scott Coe on probation for six months. Coe offered his resignation, but the board declined. They also censured one of their board members, forbidding Katherine Schacht from representing EPUD at conferences or having any contact with Coe outside of board meetings.

In October, we found out why. An unidentified EPUD employee had distributed to each board member (and also to this newspaper) over ten hours of recorded conversations between Coe and various board members, captured by the company’s phone system. Infighting between EPUD’s leaders was now on the record. The board again declined Coe’s offer to resign.

In November, EPUD board president Kevin Parrish announced a termination agreement with Coe, effective December 31. Coe agrees not to sue the utility company or its directors. In return, EPUD will pay Coe $124,261 in a severance package that amounts to six months’ salary and a scheduled contribution to his retirement plan, plus his EPUD-issued iPad.

That’s the story. Now the question, which you may have also been asking yourself: What’s with the iPad?

The salary and retirement payments are spelled out in Coe’s employment contract, but his contract does not contemplate custody of a personal electronic device. We learned later that Coe’s earlier offer to resign also specified his desire to keep his iPad.

I have an iPad. If I had to give it up for some reason, I probably would buy another one and transfer my files and apps onto the new one. It’s not the iPad itself that I wonder about here. It just seems out of proportion in this context.

If a teenager was being grounded for bad grades, losing an iPad might come up. But when an executive agrees to walk away with an eighth of a million dollars, why even mention an electronic gadget? That seems silly. Coe’s own estimate of the iPad’s value is $150. He told me it is a “twice-used” model, repurposed after another EPUD employee left the company.

Rather than putting his staff in the awkward position of determining whether their boss should keep his iPad, Coe told me, “I thought I’d just make it easy on everyone and add it to the exit package.”

It still seemed weirdly specific to me. If Coe had asked for the company’s automated recording system as part of his settlement, that would have made more sense. Part of Coe’s legacy will be the curtailing of those company-wide recordings. (I don’t know about you, but “This call may be monitored or recorded for quality assurance” has taken on a whole new meaning for me after this incident.)

I called EPUD board president Parrish, hoping he might shed some light on the exchange. He called me back, clearly exhausted from the whole controversy. He was frank: “I don’t know why he wanted the iPad so much. In the great scheme of things, it didn’t seem reasonable to fight it. I just really wanted to get it over with.”

I started to wonder whether Apple’s product placement strategy was no longer limited to movies and television shows. Is the richest company in the world now planting references to its products in employment contracts and news stories?

I asked John Stark, KLCC’s general manager, about how his station takes advantage of the iPad’s lure. Every time our NPR affiliate asks listeners to contribute, they are enticed with a chance to win an iPad. Sure enough, Stark confirmed it.

“Public radio listeners covet iPads,” Stark told me. “It’s the most desirable reward we offer for pledging, even surpassing the ‘Nina Totenbag’ and Carl Kassel’s voice on your answering machine. During our December Radiothon, KLCC will again offer iPads to lucky listeners.”

Thanks to his negotiated severance package, Coe won’t be among those coveting an iPad from KLCC. But he might wish he could have Carl Kassel’s voice — really, anyone’s but his — on his phone machine.

==

Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs

→ 3 CommentsTags: Arr-Gee published · Civic · Psycho · You-gene

Has “Lesser of Two Evils” Stopped Working (for Democrats)?

November 20th, 2014 · 3 Comments

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Thoughtful analyses on these pages have attended to the alarmingly low voter turnout in our recent election. By some counts, the last time an election was decided by so few was 1942, when many Americans were busy fighting World War II.

Strict voter ID laws and new limits on early voting, uniformly sponsored by Republicans, may well have contributed to their sweeping victories last Tuesday. Voter suppression worked, and people are talking about it. Less understood and little noticed is voter self-suppression. Why did so many voters — disproportionately urban, young, and minority voters — stay home?

We know that a constant barrage of negative campaign ads can leave voters disgusted enough to not bother, but we’ve assumed that disgust will be evenly spread across the electorate. We may be living inside an experiment that proves that assumption wrong.

But before we get there, let’s back up. The “horse race” captivates us, but the groundskeeping of the track itself might have had more to do with the outcome than the horses themselves.

U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell made headlines in late 2010 when he told an audience at the Heritage Foundation that his party’s “top priority over the next two years should be to deny President Obama a second term.” Until that moment, electioneering and governance had been kept politely separate, at least in the public eye.

Republicans didn’t succeed in denying Obama a second term, but their strategy has certainly gummed up governance since. Collaboration between the two parties collapsed and we ended up with a governing model that lacks the nuance and balance that comes from considering the minority’s views.

Conservatives have traditionally done what they can to rein in liberals’ worst governing instincts. As skeptics and watchdogs, the political right warns against bureaucratic groupthink and hubristic excess. Unfettered government has no natural predator between elections, so the daily refinements and alternatives offered by contrarians are essential to success.

This new strategy is different. Bystanding Republicans simply smile, shake their heads, and wait. When the next election rolls around, they trot out all the ways government has botched things and said, “See?”

Citizens don’t necessarily dislike government. But they deeply dislike government overreach and clumsiness. Whether you like the idea of Obamacare or not, there was nothing to love about how it was rolled out. Republicans kept their distance as things fell apart, so there was no “government stink” on them when the election campaigns began.

Government is not efficient, competent, or lovable when left to its own devices. Voters welcomed the opportunity to register their lack of love last Tuesday.

Getting Republicans to the polls was one way to win the election. Convincing Democrats to stay home was another. This midterm campaign accomplished both, with a powerful assist from Democrats.

Back to the race track analogy, Republicans are better “mudders.” They believe government should be used only where necessary, and as sparingly as possible. A fast track frightens them. Watching government work, in their view, should be painful and plodding, not a sunny afternoon in the park. Negative political ads fit better their world view that government intervention should always be the least bad option.

Attack ads proliferate because they work. Their short-term effects have been well-documented, but what about the long-term consequences on society? What if voter apathy affects liberals more?

It stands to reason. Since liberals have a higher view of government, they have further to fall. Here’s where liberals have been unwittingly hurting themselves. By emphasizing the worst characteristics of their opponents, they are also tarnishing the image of government itself. They may have been winning their battles but slowly losing the war.

Candidates can win elections as the “lesser of two evils,” but maybe not perpetually. Institutional trust diminishes slightly after and because of each negative campaign. It doesn’t matter if the majority of Americans favor your policies if large enough numbers of them fail to vote.

At some point, each voter recognizes a third option when choosing between two evils. You can always put a pillow over your head and wish they’d both go away.

==

Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs

→ 3 CommentsTags: Civic

Vetoes Clarify Issues, Strengthen the Party

November 7th, 2014 · 1 Comment

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Oregon Democrats did not suffer the drubbing that the party took nationwide on Tuesday. In fact, Democrats could find a silver lining in this week’s red horizon if they look at Oregon’s recent political history.

“The scene in Salem isn’t going to change much,” lobbyist Doug Barber told me over lunch on Wednesday. “Democrats are likely to pick up a seat or two in each chamber. Incumbents had a good year — especially Democrats.”

That includes our incumbentest chief executive ever, with Democrat John Kitzhaber heading into his fourth term as governor.

Our delegation to Washington, D.C. likewise will be unchanged. None of those races ended up being particularly close either. Rep. Peter DeFazio has endured a sequel to his own version of “Groundhog Day,” defeating challenger Art Robinson again, again. And Sen. Jeff Merkley’s race ended up offering much ado about nothing, once the Koch brothers lost interest in his opponent.

U.S.S. Oregon is “steady as she goes” in the turbulent waters of voter disaffection that capsized Democrats all across the nation.

If the scene in our state capital won’t be changing much, quite the opposite will be true in the nation’s capital. President Obama will have to learn how to use his veto power. His best tutor would be Governor Kitzhaber.

Obama has so far vetoed fewer bills than any full-term president since Millard Fillmore — only two, and both for technical reasons. In fact, if you want to lay blame for this week’s Democratic losses, you can point to the president’s collusion with now-outgoing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

Reid refused to schedule votes for any bills that the White House didn’t want to sign. This gave Democrats the appearance of a united front against Republicans, which became the club the challengers used to pummel the incumbents.

In state after state, the attack lines were the same. “My opponent has voted with Barack Obama 98 percent of the time….” That argument could be made effectively and universally only because the votes were few and so, united.

This is not how federal governance is supposed to work. Senators and Representatives are sent to Washington to look out for their citizens’ best interests — not what is expedient for their political party’s leaders.

Vetoes shine a light that backroom bottlenecks cannot. The nightly news seldom leads with what didn’t happen that day, so Reid’s refusals went unnoticed by most Americans. Vetoes will attract more attention — and that might be good for Democrats.

Kitzhaber can show Obama how it’s done. He vetoed so many bills during his first two terms as governor in the 1990s that he earned the nickname “Dr. No” — but notice what has happened since.

Kitzhaber’s veto binge clarified issues for Oregon voters. Republican legislators voted for bills and the Democratic governor refused to sign 200 of them, often with a news conference explaining why. Republicans have not won a single executive branch office or controlled either legislative chamber in Salem since.

Only the chief executive can claim to be speaking to and for all voters. Legislators will and should compete with one another for their piece of the pie, but the whole pie is the purview of the president or governor.

If Obama can learn to veto legislation as effectively as Kitzhaber did, Democrats may see his last two years as more consequential than his first six.

Obama must speak clearly, briefly and often about why he’s refusing to sign into law various items on his opponents’ agenda. He also must accept that occasionally an otherwise loyal lawmaker may break ranks to represent his or her constituents. Some of his vetoes may even gather the two-thirds majority necessary to become law without his signature.

Democratic leadership has resisted this scenario because they believe it makes the president look weak. Kitzhaber has shown there is life after vetoes, for the politician and especially for his party.

Voters deserve a better understanding of what each party stands for. Vetoes are good for that. President Fillmore refused to use his veto power. And no one ever heard from the Whigs again.

==

Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs

→ 1 CommentTags: Arr-Gee published · DC · Media · Pure Pol · Upper-Left-Edge

Fifth Friday Frightful Fripperies

October 31st, 2014 · 1 Comment

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Who ever thought it would be a good idea to put Election Day so close to Halloween? Billions of dollars are being spent to spook us about poor people or billionaires (choose one) — but there’s so much more. Ebola, ISIS, identity theft, school shootings, pink slime — we’re adrift in an age of free-floating and unarticulated fears. Here’s my attempt to articulate some of those in a first-ever collection of fifth Friday far-flung frightful fripperies:
• Your throw pillows are on the verge of being overthrown.
• Your lack of extra strength is why you’ll buy anything making that claim on its label.
• “Heavy duty” used to have the same effect on you, back when you were 30 pounds lighter.
• Bacteria grow and change faster than you, and you can’t stay out of their way.
• You almost certainly will be killed by something smaller than you.
• Better lighting will fix only so much.
• There’s nothing wrong with you that any product or purchase can improve.
• Nothing you do can predetermine your children’s choices.
• What makes you think the dark forces that combine in Drano will stop working together after your sink is unclogged?
• Just because everybody is sporting neon below their ankles doesn’t make it look less silly.
• You’re doing something wrong and everybody knows it.
• If somebody swept your kitchen of every spice, package and can that’s past its expiration date, you would starve.
• Fashion and comfort police soon will decree the Unitard Age has begun, and you won’t be ready.
• Autocorrect will mix up “wife” and “wifi” in the most embarrassing way possible.
• Your refrigerator’s random cycling on and off is sending signals to all your other appliances.
• Toothpaste and drywall have more common ingredients than you ever would have guessed.
• Your cable package does not include the network showing the next big hit.
• We will build it. They will come. We won’t like them.
• In a cashless society, checks won’t bounce — they’ll ricochet.
• Plants resent being hybridized and they’re getting ready to show it.
• Our dogs think the world of us, but only when we’re looking at them.
• Apple secretly pays product placement fees to coffee shop regulars, but you’re not one of them.
• Your favorite health food is not produced sustainably.
• You left something in your front yard just long enough for a neighbor to decide he or she dislikes you.
• You know of at least one online password that is forgotten and irretrievable, but there are more.
• Everyone you know has more frequent flyer miles than you.
• Your loved ones are concerned that you spend too much or too little time in the bathroom.
• You’re good. You’re not good enough. You cannot believe both at once, but they are equally true.
• Your guilty pleasures will cease giving you pleasure, but continue giving you guilt.
• Aluminum will turn out to have been a bad idea.
• Reading cursive will give you opportunity to impress your grandchildren and depress yourself at the same time.
• Artificial Intelligence has progressed further than we realized, because the smartest machines are now capable of concealing their capabilities from us.
• Half the buttons on your devices and gizmos are waiting to improve your life, if only you could figure out what they do.
• Consuming so much comfort food that you feel uncomfortable leaves you needing more comfort.
• There’s something deep inside bowling ball finger holes that you don’t want to know about.
• You will be forgotten, and sooner than you think.
• Fear of any of the above makes you less — not more — capable of coping.
==
Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs

→ 1 CommentTags: Arr-Gee published · Deep · Grins · Psycho · Quips

Fresno, Eugene’s Forgettable Sister City

October 24th, 2014 · 4 Comments

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Eugene has four official sister cities. They are in Japan, Russia, South Korea, and Nepal. Not included on that list is a city that bears some familial resemblances to Eugene and is much closer. Last month, I drove to Fresno, California in a car with intermittent air conditioning. Among professional writers, this passes as “suffering for your art.”

My first time in Fresno was traveling in a camper van in 1990 with my two grade-school-age sons. After a week in southern California where perfection was displayed and marketed on every corner, we were happy to get away from the crowds — until we discovered what those crowds already knew.

Ocean breezes and lush parks behind us, we contented ourselves with a campsite under a single sad sapling. If you know the latter half of Jonah’s Old Testament story, you can substitute his details for mine.

Whatever deal California had made with the Devil for its unrelenting perfection, the Devil must have gotten the state’s central valley in return. Hades is not normally depicted with a highway running through it, but that’s only because nobody wants to remember their time in Fresno.

Noti resident Jodi Sommers told me her Fresno story in the Eugene airport. As she was telling it, she was also wishing she could forget it.

She and her boyfriend ended up in Fresno to repair their car after bears had disrupted their camping trip.

They had been backpacking in Yosemite, and black bears smelled food inside their locked Mazda GLC. “They were familiar with this type of car. They broke the passenger window, rolled back the frame around the window and climbed on in and ate a lot of our food, leaving bear slime throughout the car.”

Steve Ransom grew up along that I-5 corridor but knew college would be his ticket away, so he came to the University of Oregon. He has since returned to suburban Sacramento and married his 5th-grade sweetheart, but he never goes to Fresno. He described it to me as “where beige goes to die.”

I can tell you what dead beige looks like. It’s a massive downtown walking mall, filled with urine-stained concrete.

Fresno’s Fulton Mall opened 50 years ago last month, to much fanfare. Eugene’s downtown mall was a scaled-down version of Fresno’s, incorporating fountains and sculptures and container landscaping.

Today the Fresno mall is just dreadful. Its caption today would be: “If we build it, they will flee.”

The fountains no longer function, the containers hold weeds, and a million-dollar Renoir sculpture looks hidden in plain sight among resale shops, social service agencies, and vacant buildings.

Fresno is just now preparing to re-open its mall to traffic. For once, we can say Eugene moved more quickly than a peer.

My pilgrimage to Fresno had another purpose. I wanted to shake somebody’s hand, to thank them for Jon Ruiz. Eugene City Manager Ruiz was one of two assistant city managers in Fresno when he interviewed for his current job in February, 2008.

Look at what Eugene has accomplished since and compare it to Fresno over the same period. Give our city manager even the smallest slice of credit for that. We came out ahead.

Executive Assistant Therese Edwards remembered Ruiz well, and she was willing to shake my hand. “I worked for Jon for one day less than a year,” she told me. “That’s how long he stayed in the public works department. I could tell right away that he was a different sort of manager.”

Edwards had worked for the city for long enough to know. “Most managers would come in and close their door, just learning the job first. Not Jon. He was reaching out from Day One. He would talk to anybody who could help move things along. He always had a vision he wanted to see accomplished.”

She remembered two things Ruiz especially loved. “He loved his tea. And he loved to ride his bike. So Eugene’s probably been a good fit for him, right?”

It’s been only six and a half years. But yeah — so far, so good.

==

Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs

→ 4 CommentsTags: Arr-Gee published · Civic · You-gene

Tax Pot at Zero Percent, Just in Case

October 17th, 2014 · No Comments

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WHEREAS, the City of Eugene is an Oregon home-rule municipal corporation having the authority (blah blah), now therefore the City of Eugene ordains as follows: A tax is hereby levied and must be paid by every seller exercising the taxable privilege of selling recreational marijuana.

Early next week, the Eugene City Council could draft an ordinance very like the paragraph above, except much longer. And it should. At the same meeting, it should also draft a resolution that suspends any such tax for at least six months.

Taken together, these actions would be understood not as an effort to raise money, but simply to retain control. Legal advisers are uncertain whether the courts will allow municipalities any control over recreational marijuana after Measure 91 passes in November, which appears likely. Two dozen Oregon cities have decided they have nothing to lose.

Look at it like this. Marcus Mariota sees that a defender jumps offsides as he hollers “hike.” A penalty flag is dropped but there’s no whistle stopping the play. He knows the play can be called back if the Ducks don’t like the outcome, or they can decline the penalty if they do. He can throw a risky pass, hoping for a high-stakes gain.

It’s considered a “free play” because there’s no risk involved.

Measure 91 forbids local taxes, but only those imposed after the item is legalized. The flag has been thrown but the whistle won’t blow until November 4.

Springfield looks likely to adopt a pot tax and Lane County has scheduled a hearing for next Tuesday. Charging a nickel for grocery bags seemed silly to them, but they may double down with a tax on dime-bags.

Eugene Mayor Kitty Piercy was invited this week to a conference focused on entrepreneurial cities. She will return in time for Monday’s public hearing and the city council’s subsequent work session. Marijuana and entrepreneurship have been joined only in hushed conversations, but that’s changing.

Marijuana is shifting from crime to medicine to recreation. Coloradans are already seeing what comes after that: tourism. Now think about that. Where in America will more people want to visit if “get legally high” is on their bucket list?

Sure, tourists can pick where they’d most like to get their legal buzz. They can go to Colorado and ski. They can visit Seattle’s Fremont bridge troll. They may soon imagine themselves in an episode of “Portlandia.” They may even be able to attempt a CSPAN photobomb. (Initiative 71 would legalize marijuana in Washington, DC, where passage also looks likely.)

Can any of those places compete with Eugene, where the ‘60s never reached 70, the underground never went under, and psychedelia never grayed — even if its adherents did?

Tourism taxes can bring money into the local economy without burdening residents. Ashland imposed a restaurant tax in 1990 so visiting Californians could pay for more neighborhood parks. Politicians love tourism taxes because tourists can’t vote them out of office.

We may find ourselves on the forefront of an entire industry that has not yet emerged. If Eugene sees an economic windfall coming, how will we spend the money? On treatment programs, education opportunities, a tax-free marijuana dispensary for residents?

On that, I have no opinion. The proposed accompanying resolution would give City Council time to evaluate the situation. They may later rescind the ordinance altogether, or it may be invalidated by the courts. Or extending the tax suspension for longer may look smart.

A little bit of preparation might give Eugene much more control.

My mother always insisted I carry a jacket when I was leaving the house for more than an hour or two. Her rule was simple, self-evident, and oft-repeated: “If you’ve got it, you can always take it off. But if you don’t have it, you can’t put it on.”

I remember her advice mostly from the times I didn’t take it. North winds can come quickly in Chicago. Legal and political winds of change are on the horizon for marijuana. No one knows what might come next. A little layer of protection — just in case — couldn’t hurt.

==

Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs.

→ No CommentsTags: Arr-Gee published · Civic · DC · You-gene

Oregon’s Democratic Prospects May Rise if GOP Wins

October 10th, 2014 · No Comments

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Assuming U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley wins reelection in November, there are five reasons for Oregon Democrats to feel encouraged, even though Republicans seem likely to gain control of the United States Senate.

1. GOP Control is Unlikely to Last More Than Two Years

Projecting beyond the current electoral cycle is always hazardous, but simple arithmetic allows some speculation. As senators accrue seniority and stature, their seats become more secure. Obama’s 2008 victory paved the way for about a dozen first-time Democratic senators, including Merkley. They’re defending their seats for the first time in 2014. In 2016, the hot seats shift to the GOP freshmen who benefited from the 2010 Tea Party revolt.

Add to that the difficulty Republicans have had in recent presidential campaigns and you won’t find very many conservatives who are looking forward to 2016.

2. Filibuster Will be Further Weakened by Republicans

Sen. Merkley deserves some credit for making significant and strategic noise about filibuster reform. In response, Majority Leader Harry Reid weakened the filibuster on his own terms. Senators don’t like it when their traditions are trifled with, so Republicans naturally complained. But there’s a deeper tradition in politics and schoolyards — revenge. If the Republicans control the Senate in 2015, you can be near certain they will give the Democrats even less minority power, paying them back for diminishing minority power in 2013.

In an age when it’s become so difficult to get anything done in Congress, the brake lever of the filibuster won’t be missed, at least not by those who believe in and hope for productive legislating in Washington, DC.

3. Vetoes Would Sharpen the National Debate

President Obama has vetoed exactly two bills in almost six years, fewer than any full-term presidents since 1850. Obama may lose control of the Senate precisely because he asked his allies to do his dirty work of rejection. Sen. Reid has refused to schedule votes on any bills the president didn’t want on his desk, denying senators opportunities to align their votes with their constituents. Many of those senators have struggled to defend their record.

Vetoes are clarifying. Just ask Oregon Governor Kitzhaber, who earned the nickname “Dr. No” for vetoing more bills in the 1990s than any other Oregon governor. But look at the consequences. Kitzhaber is cruising to reelection and the party he opposed has been shut out of power for two decades. Obama and the Democrats likewise will benefit from a steady stream of vetoes against Republican bills that lack popular appeal.

Gridlock will continue, but the lock on the grid will move from Sen. Reid’s passive vote scheduling to the Oval Office’s active veto power. Better optics.

4. Republicans May Revive Earmarks

Republicans will do what they can to gather the two-thirds majorities they will need to override those vetoes. Watch them quietly revive earmarks. It was a noble experiment to eliminate these costly riders that allowed legislators to fund pet projects back home, but it hasn’t worked.

As it turns out, funding a namesake aquarium or building a bridge to nowhere are the favors senators most like swapping. Bringing earmarks back would be an admission that the gears of government need the lubricant of money. That’s an admission more easily gotten from Republicans than Democrats.

5. Oregon Senators Have Powerful Seats

Sen. Ron Wyden is the current chair of the Senate Finance Committee. Merkley recently joined the Senate Appropriations Committee. If you believe that money is power, Oregon has not had this much power on Capitol Hill since the Packwood-Hatfield era ended two decades ago.

Our senators may not be able to wield much of that power during the next session of Congress if they are in the minority, but fewer obstruction tools for the minority and more freedom to fund local projects could pay off for Oregon in 2017.

If a Democrat wins the White House and brings back a Democratic majority in the Senate in 2016, we might be looking at something close to a perfect vision for Oregon as we head toward 2020.

==

Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs

→ No CommentsTags: arr-gee thumbnails · DC · Pure Pol · Upper-Left-Edge

SCOTUS-Watching: First in Line, Last to Know

October 10th, 2014 · No Comments

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If you want to watch the United States Supreme Court in action, the first thing you have to do is set your alarm. Only a few dozen seats inside go the general public.

The line usually begins forming around 3 or 4 in the morning. To be sure you’ll get a seat, the best rule is to “get in line before the subway begins running, which is 5 a.m.,” according to Ryan Malphurs, who has witnessed over 100 oral arguments and written a book on what he has observed.

When I arrived on Monday at 4:55 a.m., the line on First Street NE wasn’t a line at all. It was more of a huddle — a gaggle of a half dozen strangers sharing stories and body heat — standing against boredom and a starry chill on the cement sidewalk. “This is nothing,” insisted Graham Blackman-Harris. “We used to line up on the marble steps, and man, it was cold!”

Blackman-Harris has been standing in this line the first Monday of every October since 1991. He and Malphurs became acquainted in this line over the years, building a friendship and collaboration over the most arcane details of court arguments.

Ahead of them in line were only the arresting officer in the case to be argued that morning and two others from the Surrey County Sheriff’s department in North Carolina. They got in line just before 4 to be certain they could see this case to its ultimate conclusion.

Behind me was a genuine Supreme Court groupie and three undergraduates from nearby American University. They wondered aloud whether this term might include any sort of ruling about same sex marriage. “So far, no,” was the informed consensus.

Little did we know.

“Do you think they’ll allow cameras in the courtroom during our lifetimes?” Each of us silently calculated our own life expectancy before admitting that there’s no way to know. Until that day, this will be the only way to witness it.

A little after 7 a.m., with the line now extended to the end of the block, a beefy man with a badge and an earpiece told us what would happen next. We were given numbered cards for our next line-standing appointment at 9 a.m. inside.

We were then free to tour the hallway exhibits or grab a cup of coffee in the cafeteria. Around 9:15, we were instructed to store all electronic devices in lockers before passing through the metal detectors. Pen and paper only are allowed in the courtroom. By 9:30, we were separated from the outside world and seated in the courtroom.

We didn’t learn until later that day what the rest of the world was hearing right then. “I find it incredibly ironic,” Malphurs told me the next day, “that we were first in line and last to know.”

The first tweet came at 9:42 that the justices had denied “writ of certiorari,” letting stand five appellate court rulings that favored same-sex marriage. Their inaction effectively cleared the way for gays and lesbians to marry in 30 states, for the first time representing the majority of the country.

The most important thing the justices did that morning was what they refused to do.

But that decision was not mentioned in the courtroom. Instead, we were hearing a case focused on whether North Carolina’s 1955 motor vehicle law requiring that every automobile have a functioning “stop lamp” (singular) invalidated a routine traffic stop and subsequent vehicle search.

Except for a non-functioning second brake light (which the state law does not mention or require), the driver had done nothing wrong. Did the two ounces of cocaine found during the subsequent search amount to an unlawful seizure, violating his 4th Amendment rights?

We, that 4 a.m. gaggle, were close enough to watch these nine robed trees of jurisprudence swaying through these arguments, but the forest of their cultural impact could not be seen from where we sat. In that forest, the timber of sexual discrimination was falling, and we couldn’t hear it. We were hearing instead about the evidentiary rule forbidding tainted fruit from a poisoned tree.

==

Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs

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Let’s Have a (Very Public) Secrecy Summit

October 3rd, 2014 · No Comments

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Can we have an open conversation about secrets? Most of us would agree that some secrets are necessary for national, professional, or personal security. A world with no secrets would not be better than a world where everything was secret. So where in between is best for all?

Eugene School District and its teachers’ union led the news last weekend, which is hard to do when there’s no news provided. They announced they had reached a tentative labor agreement, then offered no details of that agreement.

Tad Shannon, Eugene Education Association president and a former Register-Guard reporter, explained the blackout this way: “It’s got to be looked at as an entire package. We want to be able to give a presentation while the entire team is there.”

Tom Di Liberto, one of the union’s negotiators, was more explicit on his Facebook page: “Having the press or community start commenting on a tentative agreement out of context would just create more confusion and could mislead.”

I asked Shannon if he’d like to offer any further comments, but my email went unanswered.

Meanwhile, the University of Oregon Board of Trustees announced their search for a new president will be held close to the vest, and that vest will be Chairman Chuck Lillis’s. Even the advisory committee that has been formed may not become privy to any potential candidates until an offer is on the table.

Again, there’s good reason for the secrecy. “There’s a pretty good chance that the person we think is terrific isn’t looking for a job and we may have to convince them,” Lillis said. He also noted that the more open process used recently has not worked so well.

The question I wish we could explore is when secrecy crosses from necessary to excessive. Secrecy: sometimes OK. Cover-up: never OK.

I spent over three hours Wednesday in Washington D.C. watching the head of the Secret Service refuse to divulge any details about why and how a White House intruder got through the front door. (Short answer: It was unlocked.)

More importantly, Secret Service Director Julia Pierson was unable to explain why the official reports from her agency “evolved.” First, we were told the intruder had no weapon. Then he did, but only got to the building’s threshold. Later, the Washington Post reported that the alarm by the front door had been disabled because it annoyed nearby ushers. Then we learned that the intruder actually dashed deep into the building. Shortly after the Congressional hearing, news broke that the Secret Service officer who finally tackled the intruder was off duty and just happened to be there.

For the only federal agency with “Secret” in its name, Director Pierson didn’t succeed in keeping many, thanks to Post reporter Carol Leonnig. Secret Service’s annual budget exceeds $1 billion, for which it produces one product: trust. The president, state dignitaries, and all Americans rely on that trust.

Protection protocols for the White House include Secret Service surveillance of Pennsylvania Avenue, a seven-foot wrought-iron fence, guards at the perimeter and the door, attack dogs, sharpshooters, door locks, door alarms, and an emergency intercom system.

Three additional safeguards have been added since: automatic door locks, an additional barricade in front of the fence, and Pierson’s stonewalling. What wasn’t offered, at least not publicly, was whether the non-performing agents will be fired.

Pierson resigned her directorship on Thursday, which had to happen. She and all Americans should all be glad the only sword fallen upon was metaphorical.

Let’s claim this as a teachable moment and convene a Secrecy Summit.

Without Leonnig’s investigative reporting, Secret Service house-cleaning would have stopped at rug-sweeping. But industrious and fearless journalists can’t be everywhere. As information can be distributed more easily, protecting information becomes more important. Just ask your children’s teachers.

Who gets to keep secrets from whom, for how long, and with what protections? If they use that shield of secrecy to mislead or dissemble, who will pay and who will decide?

We might all agree how and when secrets are permissible, but we’ll need to talk about it first.

==

Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs

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Place-Making Must Reclaim Its Place

September 26th, 2014 · 2 Comments

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I have a new nearby option for Vietnamese food. I can walk to a corner parking lot and order my pho from Tam’s Place. But it’s not a place, at least not for anyone but Tam. It’s a food truck.

Sometimes I drive by and the truck is not parked there. Tam’s Place is in some other place. So which place is Tam’s Place? I guess I’d have to ask Tam Howitt. (I learned her name from her Facebook page.) She probably has dreams of someday having her own place, inviting people in and feeding them. Or maybe she had a place and now she’s downsized to a food truck but doesn’t want to print new business cards.

Tam doesn’t need my advice and I’m not meaning to offer it. But I do worry that we’re losing something important that we call “place.” Place was central to our lives. We wanted a place of our own. We looked forward to inviting others over to our place.

Meals especially were fixed to a specific place — kitchen table for casual meals, dining room for Sundays and special occasions. Around the table, everyone had their place, even sometimes placemats.

Home used to be the ultimate place — the meta-place, where everyone’s place was placed. But it’s becoming less that now. Homes are becoming like airports, where people catch their connecting flights or gather their baggage.

We used to “check in” at home periodically — that’s where the airport term originated. But now we’re more likely to check in on websites like Facebook or Four Square. If we check in with family members, it’s by phone.

We come home to recharge — our phones!

Whatever waking hours we spend at home now are spent watching signals beamed to us from far away or sending signals to others over the World Wide Web. The world has come to our doorstep, but fewer people come through our doorway. We let our fingers do the walking. Then we forgot to exercise our other body parts.

Everybody is on the go all the time. Placing requires stopping. Placing without stopping leads to spilling and breaking and crying and hurting. Better not to even attempt to place. No one gets hurt — at least not all at once.

We’ve only traded an acute pain for a chronic one. We avoid the dramatic pain of rejection, but invite a gnawing unsettledness. Tam might find a better street corner for her Vietnamese cuisine. She’ll move on and so will her customers. But some sadness will linger, or should.

Can we know who we are if we don’t know where we are? If we don’t have a place, can we be sure there’ll always be a place for us? If a certain place isn’t ours, how can we be sure it won’t be filled by someone else? If we’ve never felt placed, will we know it when we’re about to be replaced?

That’s the fear that hides in us when we try to live without place. This is why helping to the homeless is so difficult, but also so important. Houselessness is an economic condition. Homelessness is an emotional state. Getting a house is easier than feeling at home. Home is where you feel safe, which then allows you to feel all your other feelings.

It’s not a place if you’re not invited in. Going by or going near does not make something a place. Gertrude Stein summed it up famously: “The trouble with Oakland is that when you get there, there isn’t any there there.”

Eugene is embarking on some significant place-making projects right now. We should be paying attention.

City Hall and the EWEB riverfront are prominent locations seeking to become places. Kesey Square may get reimagined to become more welcoming. New streetscapes are coming to Glenwood, south Willamette, and west Eugene. Each of these will have significant public spaces, but will they become genuine public places?

I can’t come to Tam’s Place, but I want opportunities to bump into Tam in some of these public places. If that sort of thing happens often and comfortably, we will have succeeded.

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